Conclusion: Reconstructing Liberal Pluralism

  • Katherine Smits


It should be clear from the range of liberal responses to the problem of social diversity that, contrary to John Gray’s argument, liberalism does not retreat into a sterile legalism unresponsive to social realities.1 The liberal theorists from the nineteenth century to the present whose work I’ve discussed here have all been concerned in different ways with the relationship between individuals and their social environment. I have explored the various forms in which they have imagined this relationship, the ways in which their ideas have influenced each other, and some of the limitations and internal inconsistencies of their approaches. Pluralities have been cast in terms of interests, values, and (recently) nationalities, but as we have seen, liberals since Mill have failed to recognize that individuals are ascribed to and embedded in a complex range of social groupings that shape and determine not only their ideas and interests, but also their very sense of who they are in both the public and private worlds. It would be wrong to argue that pluralities of value and interest are not in themselves important social facts, but as we have seen, they are insufficient for understanding and responding to the political claims made by theorists of identity. The reasons for liberal theory’s shift away (since Mill) from the recognition of the social construction of identity can, as I have argued here, be explained by two currents in liberal thinking. One of these dates from the origins of liberal theory itself: possessive individualism (though I use the term here more broadly than C.B. Macpherson, who famously coined it in reference to classical liberalism and the possession of material property).2


Affirmative Action Identity Group Public Sphere Liberal Theory Identity Politics 
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© Katherine Smits 2005

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  • Katherine Smits

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